Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the rulers of Saudi Arabia “infidels” (kafir) and decided to boycott the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, affecting tens of thousands of Turks, against the backdrop of the Saudis’ support for the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with whom Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was ideologically aligned.
Two witnesses recently came forward to reveal how Erdoğan, angry over the removal from office of his Muslim Brotherhood ally on July 3, 2013 by the Egyptian military amid popular protests against Morsi, responded privately to Saudi Arabia, a backer of the post-Morsi regime.
“Mr. Erdoğan wanted to boycott the Hajj during Eid al-Adha [Festival of the Sacrifice, which marks the Muslim pilgrimage season]. He said we must boycott Saudi Arabia, and Turkish pilgrims must not go [to Mecca] because it supports the new regime in Egypt,” said Ahmet Davutoğlu, the then-foreign minister, in an interview on Turkish TV on December 1, 2022.
He said at the time Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders were coming to Turkey to talk directly to Erdoğan, then prime minister, in private, bypassing the foreign ministry, of which he was then in charge. He also accused Erdoğan of misleading Muslim Brotherhood leaders before elections in Egypt and providing poor counsel to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, that led to polarization and the eventual ouster of Morsi.
Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Egypt soured following a coup that toppled Morsi, and the Erdoğan government became an outspoken adversary of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who replaced Morsi. Erdoğan made it a habit to use the Rabia salute — used to demonstrate solidarity with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which protested in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square — at almost every opportunity. Made by raising four fingers with the thumb resting on the palm, the Rabia sign became the official symbol of President Erdoğan and his party in Turkey.
The Erdoğan government organized nationwide protests against el-Sisi, turned the matter into a national issue, offered sanctuary to Brotherhood leaders and provided financial and political support for their operations.
Although Erdoğan had decided to boycott the Hajj, he then changed his mind at the urging of his advisors, who feared that a boycott could very well backfire on the Turkish government, considering the long waiting list for people who want to make the trip to Mecca because of a quota system.
In 2013 Saudi Arabia asked several Muslim countries, including Turkey, to reduce their pilgrim quotas by 20 percent, citing safety concerns for large crowds amid ongoing construction and renovation around the Kaaba. Turkey’s quota, which was 74,000 the previous year, was slashed to 60,000 in 2013.
Those 74,000 future pilgrims had been randomly selected from a pool of around 1.37 million people in March 2012. A total of 14,800 pilgrims, who had spent several months making preparations for their trip, learned that they would be left behind just a few weeks before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) tried to defuse the public outrage, announcing that 14,800 prospective pilgrims would be given priority in 2014 and that the decision to send pilgrims who had accumulated over seven years would be revisited.
The opposition got wind of the issue and even accused the Saudi government of using the quota system as political leverage against Turkey over the Erdoğan government’s stance on Egypt. The Saudi rulers maintain tremendous influence among Muslims because of its management of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
The Saudi embassy in Turkey denied the accusations and stated that the decision to reduce the quotas was taken on May 23, more than a month before the events in Egypt and denied any connection between reducing the quotas and Saudi Arabia’s Egypt policy. The lower quota was temporary and was put in place with the welfare and convenience of pilgrims in mind as well as threats to safety from dangerous overcrowding, the embassy said in a letter to a Turkish newspaper.
Overcrowding is a major problem for the pilgrimage in Mecca, where nearly 2.5 million Muslims gather annually in an event that has been described as world’s largest human gathering. The Saudi government uses the quota system to tackle the problem and prevent deaths from crowd crush. In fact, in September 2015, a stampede during the Hajj killed more than 2,000 pilgrims including seven Turks outside of Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca. The incident was the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage.
It followed an earlier incident in which a construction crane toppled over during a violent rainstorm in Mecca, crashing into the Grand Mosque and killing over 100 people including eight Turks ahead of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Another witness who recently came forward in revealing how Erdoğan felt about the Saudis around the time of Morsi’s removal from office is Ekrem Dumanli, a Turkish journalist who now lives in the US. Speaking on a YouTube program aired by the Brussels-based TR724 news channel on November 24, 2022, he recalled Erdoğan’s remarks about the Saudis after a tense phone call.
He said was talking to Erdoğan in his office and that Erdoğan had to leave to take a call in the next room. After wrapping up the call, Erdoğan returned half an hour later, apparently furious over the phone conversation and told Dumanli that “these Saudis are infidels.” “He was quite angry, spitting fire. He had just talked to the Saudis [on the phone],” Dumanli recalled.
For years, Turkey’s ties with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia had been tense since both Arab countries accused the Erdoğan government of interfering in their internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt even downgraded ties with Turkey, recalling its ambassador, and Saudi Arabia announced a boycott of Turkish goods. Only recently has the Erdoğan government, finding itself in diplomatic isolation, especially in the Mediterranean region, and faced with economic challenges at home, started reaching out to both Cairo and Riyadh to mend fences.